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Social Media and its role in mental health recovery

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Last month, I wrote in defence of social media, talking about how nurses can embrace the positives and avoid the negatives. But what about people who engage with healthcare in a non-professional capacity - that is, the service users and their carers?

Social media is, as we all know, a great tool for connecting to others. It has an immediacy for getting support when we need it most and there’s nobody around, or nobody we feel we can go to with our problems (a common experience among people with mental health issues is one of feeling a burden to others).

I saw a great example of this recently when a tweeting nurse, Sally-Ann, posted the following on Twitter:

Even though it was 11:20pm, several nurses jumped to attention, offering advice and retweeting her message. Within 20 minutes, we were updated that her daughter, G, was feeling better and that the many suggestions had helped them feel less alone at a desperate time. Later, Sally-Ann thanked the community for its kindness and support, and three days later, people were still checking on G’s wellbeing.

This is where social media comes into its own: it provides an outlet for grief and pain, or an opportunity to get support that may not otherwise exist - maybe it’s 3am and someone is in need of support, but doesn’t want to disturb their family or friends, or maybe they feel desperately alone but feel they can’t face people in the offline world.

Behind their computer screen or mobile phone there are real people, friends who the service user has developed bonds with, people who can offer a bit of support and, importantly, people with direct experience of mental health issues. Some may have fought and come out the other side themselves or they may have worked in healthcare. Knowing that someone understands what they’re experiencing can be helpful in getting through difficult times.

It goes both ways: the person who feels low is able to reach out and ask for support without the pressures of offline “real life” social interaction, and those who are able to help may feel an increase in their self-worth and self-esteem. As we can all testify, knowing you’ve helped someone is a wonderful feeling and can be a real boost to mental wellbeing.

We aren’t just limited to new kinds of social media, there’s a wealth of forums out there on all kinds of topics aimed at specific demographics. There are many boards for people with mental health conditions such as Elefriends, which is run by the mental health charity Mind and offers the additional safety of being moderated by volunteers to ensure people remain safe.

Unfortunately, because of the negative press social media receives from mainstream media and within the healthcare profession, many people (including service users) are afraid to use it, or concerned that it seems too complicated.

However, the beauty of networks like Twitter is that simplicity is key: there’s no complicated profile to fill in, and hashtags (a word with a # symbol before it, which the site automatically turns into a link) make it really easy to find people talking about mental health, or whatever it is you or your service user is interested in.

Some networks, such as, have received bad press for cyber-bullying and unkind comments from members. Users should also be aware of the risk of finding inaccurate information or damaging advice, which could be as innocent as different countries having different guidelines on certain topics, or (for example) an anorexic service user discovering a “pro-ana” website. Heath professionals can help reduce this risk by directing clients towards specific supportive resources, and social media use shouldn’t present a danger to recovery.

Of course, I’m not advocating social media as a replacement to the therapy offered by nurses, but as something complementary, a way for service users and patients to be involved in their own recovery and controlling a part of their treatment themselves. It can give someone independence, something they can do for themselves to improve their health, boosting self-efficacy and self-esteem. Managed well, with a person’s mood monitored to make sure their social media use isn’t negatively affecting their recovery, it can be an extremely positive thing.

The benefits of social media within healthcare extend well beyond connecting nurses and professionals in other disciplines; it can actively help service users, particularly outpatients, with their recovery by providing support outside appointment times and allowing them to take an active part in their own recovery. Social media promotes independence and gives service users ownership over their treatment. As nurses of the future, we should be embracing it.


Katie Sutton is the Student Nursing Times editor for Mental Health branch


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